LAWMAN. United Artists, 1971. Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Lee J. Cobb, Robert Duvall, Sheree North, Albert Salmi, Richard Jordan, John McGiver, Ralph Waite. Director: Michael Winner.

   Brutal and cynical, Lawman certainly isn’t a genial Western where the good guy takes on a villainous cattle baron, wins the love of a beautiful girl, and restores the equilibrium of the world to be on the side of justice. Rather, this Michael Winner film is a character study of an aging, brooding lawman so obsessively committed to his personal code of honor that all he is able to do is bring death and misery to all those he encounters.

   Burt Lancaster, in a role that allows little for his personal charm to shine, portrays Jared Maddox. Sporting a black leather vest and a holster, Maddox rides into the town of Sabbath. We learn through a conversation that he has with the town’s marshal Cotton Ryan (Robert Ryan) that he has come to Sabbath for a very specific reason.

   Several months ago, cowhands working for the stoical cattle baron Vincent Bronson (Lee J. Cobb) had ridden into a town by the name of Bannock and shot up the place. Although they were drunk and merely looking to blow off steam, an old man died at the hands of one of their bullets. And Maddox intends to bring the men back to Bannock to face trial.

   This sets in motion a series of violent confrontations between Maddox and the wanted men, as well as anyone who dares stand in his way. Maddox is so tied to the cause of “justice” – indeed, to his very identity as a “lawman” – that he’s increasingly blind to how much unnecessary death and misery he is bringing in his refusal to budge even slightly from his personal code.

   In that sense, Lawman stands in the tradition of those tragic Westerns in which a protagonist has outlived his time. Maddox belongs to an earlier era, in which the law was good and the outlaw was bad. Such binary demarcations are outdated in Braddock. Even the “bad” cattle baron seems to have more insight and compassion than Maddox.

   But does this mean we are supposed to not root for Maddox? Or are we supposed to be somewhat detached spectators watching Maddox make one bad decision after another? Unlike Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) in Death Wish (1974), a film Winner directed several years after Lawman, we never get to see how or why Maddox was forged into a stone cold killer.

   It’s the absence of a backstory that makes Lawman a far less compelling character study than it could have been. By the end of the film (SPOILER ALERT), when Maddox shoots a man in the back, we finally get the message. Maddox is as much a villain as a hero. And the real lawman in the film, the one we should admire is the quiet, thoughtful Cotton Ryan.